Australian Law Reform Commission's review into exemptions for religious education institutions

Prior to the May 2022 Australian federal election, the then Shadow Minister for Education the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP issued a letter outlining the ALP’s election commitments which stated that an Albanese Labor Government would act to:

  • Prevent discrimination against people of faith, including through the introduction of religious anti-vilification protections;
  • Protect all students from discrimination on any grounds;
  • Protect teachers from discrimination at work, while maintaining the right of religious schools to preference people of their faith in the selection of staff;
  • Recommence the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) Inquiry into the Framework of Religious Exemptions in Anti-Discrimination Legislation and consider what the ALRC recommends in formulating legislation.

On 26 July 2022, the newly elected Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the Government would address the religious discrimination issue during this term of Parliament.

On 4 November 2022, the Federal Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus KC MP, released the terms of reference for the Australian Law Reform Commission’s review of laws protecting faith-based schools.They include amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and other federal anti-discrimination laws to ensure educational institutions conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed:

  • Must not discriminate against a student on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy;
  • Must not discriminate against a member of staff on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy;
  • Can continue to build a community of faith by giving preference, in good faith, to persons of the same religion as the educational institution in the selection of staff.

The NCEC will be part of this inquiry and looks forward to the progression of the discussion on religious discrimination to protect students in schools. Please note this inquiry has additional scope from last year’s consideration of the Religious Discrimination Bill.

In response to the announcement of the ALRC review, the National Catholic Education Commission has issued a media statement.

Religious Discrimination Legislation

The Australian Parliament considered proposed legislation on religious freedom during 2021-2022. This is important legislation considered protections for the rights of parents to choose a faith-based school for their children that reflects their beliefs and values, and for Catholic schools to operate according to their ethos and mission.

Catholic Education responded to these inquiries through written submissions and appearances at the inquiries.

In summary, Catholic Education believes:

  • Catholic schools should be free to be Catholic
  • Religious freedom deserves the same protection as other rights in Australia, ensuring a fair and reasonable balance with other protected rights
  • This bill is about protecting religious rights, not discriminating against people who don’t support the same religious view
  • Parents should have the right to choose a school for their children that reflects their values and belief
  • Catholic schools don’t, and are not seeking to, discriminate against people on the basis of their personal attributes
  • Governments should protect the rights of Australians to associate on common religious beliefs
  • Australia needs the harmonisation of legislation for religious freedom to prevent over-reach of state legislation on faith-based schools

63% of the general population, 82% of Catholics and 79% of parents with children in Catholic schools believe “Religious schools are entitled to require employees to act in their roles that uphold the ethos and values of that faith and the school should be free to favour hiring employees who share these values” *

* Finding from a large community issues survey on a range of issues from school funding to religious freedom undertaken by a respected national pollster, John Utting Research (November 2021).

Background

There are three bills currently before Federal Parliament in relation to religious freedom:

There were two Inquiries relating to the legislation that reported back to the Parliament on 4 February 2022:

1. JOINT PARLIAMENTARY INQUIRY: Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 and related bills - Download report

Catholic Education’s submission to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights is focused on those sections in the Religious Discrimination Bill 2021 and related bills that are related to schools and school systems, specifically:

  • Part 2 – Conduct etc. that is not discrimination
  • Clause 11 – Conduct in relation to employment by religious educational institutions—overriding certain State and Territory laws
  • Part 3 – Concept of discrimination on the ground of religious belief or activity

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) has also made a submission to the Committee and should be read concurrently with Catholic Education's submission. 

A copy of the NCEC's submission to the Joint Parliamentary Committee Inquiry is available on the NCEC website. A copy of the ACBC's submission and other submissions to the Inquiry is available via the Committee website.

2. SENATE INQUIRY: Religious Discrimination Bill 2021; Religious Discrimination (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2021 and Human Rights Legislation Amendment Bill 2021 [Provisions] - Download report

The NCEC also made a submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, which is available on this website and the Senate Committee website


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